Текст книги

Frederic Bird
A Pessimist in Theory and Practice


"You may bring your valuable ideas to me, and I will hear them, when I have leisure and inclination. Yes, that will be best. But no concealments, mind. When you think you know anything that affects me, come to me with it at once: otherwise you will be blurting it out to somebody else. You promise?"

"I swear, by all my hopes of your royal favor. Anything else? I mean, has your majesty any further commands? You'll have to give me audience about three times a day, you know, to keep me in mind of all these rules, or I'll be safe to forget some of them."

"You had better try to remember. I'll keep an eye on you. And now do you want any more, or have you learnt your lesson?"

"I'll trust so. Henceforth I shall not call my soul my own. The humblest of your slaves craves permission to kiss the royal hand. I say, Clarice, you won't be rough on poor Hartman, will you? He's had hard lines: you could easily break him to pieces, what is left of him."

"If there is so little left of him, there would be small credit in breaking him to pieces, as you elegantly express it. I shall probably let him alone."

"Scarcely. There is a good deal left of him yet: he is as handsome a fellow, and as fine a fellow, as you'd be apt to find. You're tired of the regulation article, dancing man and such, that you meet every night: I don't wonder. This is something out of the common. He needs a little looking after, too. I wish now I had let you get at him in May, as you proposed."

"Robert, if you fling that odious and vulgar figment of your debased imagination at me again, I will go away and never come back. You make me sick of the man's name. If you ever breathe a hint of this disgusting slander to him I will never forgive either of you, nor speak to you."

"God forbid, Princess dear. Don't you know that your good name is as sacred to me as Mabel's? Wasn't I to come to you with notions that I couldn't put in words to anybody else?"

"Let them have some shadow of reason and decency about them, then. Cannot a girl plan a rural excursion, in company with your sister and under your escort, without being accused of designs on a strange man who chances to be in the neighborhood? You try my patience sorely, Robert. I wonder how Mabel can endure you."

"Well, he that is down can't fall any lower, as it says in Pilgrim's Progress. Walk over me some more, and then maybe you'll feel better. What the d – There, I'm at it again. Clarice, it might improve me if you would mix a little kindness with your corrections; handle me as if you loved me, like the old fisherman with his worms, you know. It discourages a fellow to get all kicks and no kisses."

"Robert, look me in the eye and swear to purge your mind of that vile thought, and never to admit another that dishonors me."

"O, I swear it. Bring me the Thirty-nine Articles and the Westminster Catechism and the Ten Tables, and I'll subscribe to all of 'em. I'll think anything you tell me to: I signed my soul away an hour ago." Here I saw that I had gone too far, and she was really angry. She's right; I must learn to check my confounded tongue, if I am to keep on any terms with the Princess. So I changed my tune, just in time. "Don't go, Clarice. Honestly, I beg your pardon; upon my soul, I do. Your word is all the evidence I want of any fact under heaven, of course. Princess dear, I've been fond of you since you were a baby, and it has grown with your growth – it has, really. I'll prove it some day: you wait and see. Forgive me this once, won't you? Don't speak, if you are tired, but just give me your hand, as they did in the Old Testament, in token of forgiveness."

She gave it. I am not good at descriptions, but a man might go barefoot and fasting for a week, and be paid by touching such a hand as that. The queer thing is that I've known Clarice for over twenty years – I told you she had been in society for six – and practically lived with her most of that time, and yet she grows more surprising every day. It seems to be generally supposed that familiarity breeds contempt in such cases; that sisters, and wives, and the like, get to be an old story to the men who belong to them. Clarice is not that kind: possibly I am not. To be sure, she is neither my wife nor any blood relation; but I don't see that that makes any difference. They took out a patent for her up above, and reserved all rights, with no power of duplication. She might care for me a little more; but then I don't suppose I've ever given her any reason to. I am well enough in my way, but I'm not such an original and striking specimen of my 'sect' as she is of hers – not by a long shot. She was exhausted now, and that is how I got a chance to put in all this wisdom just here. I might talk to Mabel for a week, and it would produce no effect: but a little thing upsets the Princess, her organization is so delicate and sensitive. She is all alive and on fire, or else languid and disdainful: she can't take life easily, as people of coarser grain do, like me. Her brain weighs too much and works too hard; that uses her up. I don't doubt she has a heart to match; but it has never yet waked up to any great extent, so far as I have seen or heard. No matter; people will care for you all the same, Beauty, whether you care for them or not. Don't fancy that I am the only one – far from it: but I have the luck to be her adopted brother from infancy, and to have access to her when others have not. She is not always kind – very seldom, in fact, up to date: but it is a privilege to look at her, and any treatment from her is good enough for me. She used to tyrannize over me in this way when she was ten and I twenty, and so it will be, no doubt, to the end of the chapter. Outside, I sometimes take on a man-of-the-world air, and fancy that I can think of you lightly, my Princess – that is the correct society tone, and it does not pay to display the finer feelings of our nature to the general world: but when I come under the spell of your presence, I know that that is all humbug, and that you are Fair Inez of the ballad, God bless you. You and Hartman ought to get on together: it might be a good thing for you both – him especially. Mabel and Jane are women too, but they are as devoted to you as I am, according to their lights, and more jealous for you: jealousy seems to be no part of me, luckily. Well, between us we ought to be able to keep all harm from you, if you will let us.

Of course I didn't say all this out loud, but only thought it. Then she opened her eyes and yawned a little.

"Have I been asleep, Bob? I must have been: you tired me so. O yes, I know you think a good deal of me: that is an old story. Well, anything more?"

"Only about poor Hartman, dear: you didn't promise yet."

"Well, when he comes I will look him over and see what is to be done with him. I must go upstairs and dress now." And with this I had to be content.

This conversation occurred of a Sunday afternoon, when Mabel and Jane had gone to Church, and taken Herbert with them: the infants were out for an airing with their nurse. Fortunately there was a long missionary sermon, and a big collection, to which I must send five dollars extra: the occasion was worth that much to me. As the Princess left the room, they came in. They looked at her, then at me. "What have you been doing to Clarice, Robert?"

"Only preparing her to receive Hartman."

"Preparing her! you great goose, what does she want with your preparation? You'll only prejudice her against him, and spoil any chances he might have. Let her alone, do. Haven't you made mischief enough between them already?"

That is all they know about it. Churchgoing sometimes fails to bring the female mind into a proper frame. But you see they are ready to scratch out even my eyes at the thought that I have been rubbing her down the wrong way. No matter: I know what I know, and they need not try to make me believe that these things will go right without proper management.

V.

CONSULTATION

We usually go to Newport for the summer. As Mrs. Fishhawk says, the bathing is so fine, and the cliffs are such a safe place for children to play. Not that we care so much for the society: the Princess has seen the vanity of that and been bored with it, and the rest of us are very domestic people. After much persuasion through the mail, Hartman agreed to join us there: I was to pick him up in New York and take him down. A night or two before this, Clarice took me out on the aforesaid cliffs, which afford a fine walk in the moonlight with the right kind of company, but somewhat dangerous if you get spoony and forget to look where you are going. The Princess, it is needless to say, never commits this folly: she always has her wits about her, and wits of a high order they are, as not a few men have found to their cost, myself included, – many and many a time. She opened the ball.

"Robert, do you remember our compact?"

"I'm not likely to forget it. Your words are my law, more sacred and peremptory than the Ten Commandments, or those of the old codger who wrote 'em in blood because his ink had given out. As a servant looks to the hand of his mistress, so am I to watch your dark blue eye for direction and approval. Deign to cast a sweet smile, however faint, in this direction occasionally: it won't cost you much, and will encourage me. If the devotion of a lifetime – "

"Yes, I know all that: at least you've said it often enough. Now you will have an opportunity to put it in practice. Drop generalities, and come to business."

"My heart's queen, I am all attention. Speak, and thy slave obeys. Bid me leap from yon beetling crag into the billows' angry roar – "

"Will you stop that, or shall I go into the house? We are not rehearsing private theatricals now."

"Ah, indeed? I thought we might be. I expect to see some next week."

"You will see my place at table vacant if you don't keep quiet, and listen to what I have to say. I can join Constance yet. You talk about your affection for me and anxiety to serve me, and when I want something definite of you, you go off into the Byronic, or the Platonic, or what you would perhaps call the humorous: it is not easy to discriminate them. Once for all, will you do as I bid you, or not?"

When the Princess wants to bring a man to book, he has to come there, and stay there till he sees a favorable opening for a break: there was none such just now. So I called in the white-winged coursers of my too exuberant fancy, locked them up in the barn, begged the lady's pardon as usual, and composed myself into an attitude of respectful and devout attention, as if I were in church. It was not long after dinner: I wanted to have some more fun, but that did not seem to be just the time and place for it. My preceptress eyed me sternly, and waxed anew the thread of her discourse.

"I told you that my actions might appear strange to your ignorance. I will tell you now what my plan is, so far as is necessary for your guidance: then perhaps you will have sense enough not to go gaping about, but to fall into line and do what is required of you. I have determined to see very little of this Mr. Hartman – "

"O now, Clarice! After you promised! I relied on you – "

"Be still, stupid, and hear me out. I shall see but little of him at first. You have made such an ado about the man, I am disposed to be interested in him, for your sake. There, that will do; let my hand be." – I was merely pressing it a little, I assure you, to testify my gratitude for this unusual consideration: I don't know when she ever owned to doing a thing for my sake before. "For your sake first, you great baby, and then, if he is worth it, for his own. But at the start, as I told you, I must look him over; and that I can do best at a little distance."

"And then you mean to take him in and do for him? You can, of course; but, Princess dear, be merciful – for my sake first, and then, if he is worth it, for his own. Don't grind him up too fine: leave pieces of him big enough to be recognized and collected by his weeping friends."

"Robert, you really ought to try to restrain your native coarseness. What can a man like you know of the motives and intentions of a woman like me? Poor child, if I were to put them before you in the plainest terms the facts and the dictionary allow, you could not understand them."

As a quartz-crusher the Princess could have won fame and fortune. I hope she may not pulverize Hartman as effectually as she does me: he might not take it so kindly. To eliminate the metaphor, she is a master at the wholesome process of taking a man down: not that I don't often deserve it, or that it is not good for me. In fact, I've given her occasion, from her youth up, to get her hand in; and admiration of her skill binds up the wounds, so to speak, with which my whole moral nature is scarred at least sixteen deep. In case you should not follow my imaginative style, let me say in simpler language that I am used to it; but another man might not understand it. I consumed some more humble pie – these desserts occur frequently in the symposia of our conversations – and she resumed.

"So I will leave him to Jane at first. She will be very sisterly and gracious, and will make the first stages of his return to the world easy and pleasant. This may last two days, or two weeks."

"O, don't overdo it. He talked of staying but a week or ten days."

"Dear Robert, you are so innocent. He will stay as long as I want him to."

"What, whether you notice him or not?"

"Of course. Are you six years old? Have you never seen me in action before?"

"Body of Venus and soul of Sappho, I give it up. Of course you can do anything you like, but I never realized that you could do it without seeming to take a hand in the game. I strew ashes on my head like what's-his-name, and sit down in the dust at your feet. Forgive a penitent devotee for forming such lame and inadequate conceptions of your power. But what part do you want me to dress for in this improving moral drama?"

"Your part is very simple. Of course I must be occupied. I should hardly shine as a wall-flower."

"You would shine anywhere. If you were a violet by an old stone, you couldn't be half or a quarter hidden from the eye. But the supposition is impossible. If you were free, no other girl in the room would have a chance."

"That is very passable, though not wholly new. You are improving, Bob. If you would give your mind to it, I could mould you into tolerable manners yet. – Well, I might get plenty of men from the houses around. But they are tiresome – staler than you, my Robert, though I see less of them – and I can't take the same liberties with them I do with you. You are to belong to me as long as I may want you."

"That is not new at all, Princess. It has been so for years. Everybody about the house knows that, even the servants – and all our friends."

"Yes, of course. But I am to make special use of my property for the next few days. You will have to be in constant attendance. You ought to enjoy the prospect, and the reality when it comes."

"I do; I shall: bet your boots on that. O confound it, I've got my lines mixed already."